October 26, 2021

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Just Two Major Bursts Of Evolution Brought Plants All Their Diversity

Plants may have quickly evolved all their complexities in two short, yet dramatic bursts, rather than gradually over millions of years.

A new study led by researchers at Stanford University shows that land-based plants underwent diversification in two bursts, around 250 million years apart from each other. The first evolutionary burst led to the development of seeds, while the second caused the diversification of flowering plants.

While plants were thought to have become more complex as they developed seeds and flowers, the new research brings insight into the timing of those developments. The researchers used a novel metric to classify plant species based on complexity and arranged them into groups based on the number of parts they contained in their reproductive systems.

According to Andrew Leslie, lead author of the study and geological sciences professor at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Science, the stasis or a plateau in the development of complexity after the initial development of seeds surprised the researchers. After a long period of stasis, a sudden dramatic change happened when flowering plants diversified.

Researchers found that the reproductive structures in various plants are different, yet all of them all about the same number of reproductive parts during that initial period of stasis.

Flowering plants are more complex and diverse than other groups of plants. They come in a plethora of colors, shapes, and smells, with intricate parts such as pistils, petals, and anthers that have a precise arrangement to lure pollinators.

Scientists have long focussed on characteristics within groups of plants within the same family to study evolution, as it is harder to compare flowering plants which are more complex and diverse to their no flowering, and simpler brethren.

For this study, researchers developed a unique system that classified plants based on the number of reproductive parts they possessed based on observation. This allowed them to overcome the complexities of comparing flowering and non-flowering plants to study their evolutionary paths.

Cover Image: Shutterstock

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